I've always pictured pigeons as messy birds found under bridges, in railroad stations and city parks. I'd heard the name "carrier pigeon" when I was a young child. I also heard about pigeon racing, but couldn't understand how such wild birds could be trained to race. When I first moved to Greenwich in 1976, I noticed a building on Holly Hill Lane next to the Transfer Station with a sign that read Greenwich Pigeon Club. That was about as much as I knew about pigeons.
During research for another blog, I spotted an article about pigeon racing in Greenwich. Surprisingly, it was very interesting! William Griffin - who owned Griffin Ford Used Cars on Railroad Avenue near Prospect Street - was a well-known pigeon enthusiast. He grew up in Pelham NY, where the owner of a service station gave him his first bird at age 15. When he joined the NAVY several years later, he was forced to give up the hobby; but when he returned, he picked up where he had left off. Famed pigeon racer Dr. Leon Whitney, who Griffin called "The Dean of Racing Pigeons in New England", gave him some new pigeons and Griffin managed to amass a group of 80 birds! Although the complex is now a used Lexus dealership, you can still see the "coops" Griffin constructed on the roof.
When racing pigeons are 5-days old, a special ID tag is permanently attached to the bird. Griffin's tags also contained the birds birth date. During competition, special rubber bands are attached also. After the race, these are placed in a capsule, which is cranked into a racing clock to record the exact date and time that the bird arrived. Today, birds may be tracked using implanted computer chips or GPS. The actual training of a bird begins when it's 4-weeks old. At first, the pigeon is taken outside and released in the immediate area. This process is called "routing". Over time, the bird is taken further and further away before it is released. Favorite spots for release include Battery Park in New York, Princeton NJ, and Washington DC. Then the birds are ready for competition. Pigeons feed mainly on seeds and grains. Bales of hay are provided so that the pigeons can build nests in their coops. Although they can get feather lice from common "barnyard" pigeons, pigeon-lovers claim the bred birds don't carry any disease that humans can get. SOURCE: IT Shambles@WordPress
The price for a racing pigeon has increased over time. In an Oral History Project transcript given by Lou Imbrogno, he stated that he paid 50-cents for his first bird at a Port Chester "chicken store". Another person reportedly paid $150 for a Blue Hen Pigeon in 2005. There is a report of people paying $3,000 to $5,000 for champion birds, and someone paid $144,000 for a Belgian Racing Pigeon! In addition, it could cost $4,000 to $5,000 to build a coop. A pigeon clock could cost $300. Sometimes the pigeons pick up diseases (respiratory distress, cankerdis, coccidioides, lice) from other bird pigeons. This makes it necessary to use antibiotics and other medications to treat the pigeons. The closest known doctors who can treat such diseases are not local. One was known to live in Wilton, but others are as far away as New Jersey and Oklahoma! This hobby can be very expensive!
There are many different breeds of pigeons: homing, fancy, and carrier. Homing pigeons are bred to find their way home over long distances. Fancy (or Show) are a domesticated bird bred to exhibit. Carrier pigeons carry messages on thin paper, rolled into a tube and attached to their legs.
Carrier pigeons were used for relaying messages in Persia in the 6th century BC. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) they were used by Parisians, but the Prussians released Peregrine hawks to bring the birds down! American troops used messenger pigeons to communicate on the battlefield during World War I & II. Americans, English and French troops used them to carry messages back and forth from the battlefield. Warplanes were known to carry them for backup. A pigeon named "Burma Queen" was credited with saving a batallion by delaying a bombing run by friendly forces. They were noted for their speed and range. Adults can fly up to 600 miles or more. It's been reported that a coop was maintained in Greenwich during World War II by resident Ed Kriskey behind homeplate on Havemeyer Field. He wanted to make sure there was a supply of pigeons in case the military needed them. Experts claim the famous Rothschild's family made its fortune using pigeons to fly between England and France with financial information!
According to Mr. Imbrogno, most pigeons were brought to the US by immigrants from Belgium and England. People started racing them in Manhattan, Long Island, the Bronx and Yonkers. There was an Edgewood Homing Pigeon Club in town that operated during the early 1930s. The Greenwich Club started in 1934 near Sacred Heart Church in Byram. In 1954, the club moved to a building at the entrance to the Recycling Center on Holly Hill Road. The original building was 20' x 40' and a 20' x 14' addition was added later. Originally, there were 25 members. They would meet once or twice before the season started, then every week to crate up the birds for racing. At one time, these crates were given to conductors on the train, who would release the birds in places like New Jersey. Truck drivers have also been enlisted. Enthusiasts will sometimes personally drive the birds to a release location.
The racing season varies from country to country. In the US it runs from the summer to fall, followed by the "breeding" season (February to May). There are several systems used to give them incentive to fly. One involves leaving the female and baby at home, while the male is taken to a release point. The female is needed to protect the nest. Another system involves taking the whole family to a release point. The birds will fly home to get back to the nest.
In 2006, 2007 and 2009, the National Racing Pigeon Association held a show at the Old Greenwich (Eastern) Civic Center. Five-hundred breeders, judges and competitors met to view 600 birds. Some of the birds are bred for racing, while others are judged for body tone. Pigeons are rated for symmetry, healthy feathers and healthy coat. Some breeders post Family Trees to prove pedigree since their birds may be purchased for breeding. There is actually a pigeon show circuit across the USA. The American Racing Pigeon Union has 10,000 members! There are several publications on the sport including The Pigeon Bulletin and The Racing Pigeon Digest. Some races are big money races - almost as big as the Kentucky Derby!
Some enthusiasts believe the birds may be effected by radio, television and cell phone transmissions. Pigeons seem to rely on magnetic fields, and any kind of electromagnetic waves may throw them off. Racers who used to arrive seconds apart seem to be arriving later. There has also been problems with pollution. The air and water may contain poisons. Add to this the danger of predators, and it's no wonder the pigeon population is decreasing. In some cases, it's been estimated that only 56% of released birds ever make it home.
Pigeon racing is a declining sport in town. The Greenwich Pigeon Club, which once had 40 members, dropped down to 16 in 2001. Cost and changing lifestyles have effected the sport. Pigeonsare still popular in the South and California. Many consider it a great hobby for families. Powder Puff Races for women have been started to attract new enthusiasts. The sport is being promoted as a family activity.
Pigeons have been called "Thoroughbreds of the Sky" and "Squirrels of the Air". There is no doubt that they are athletic and skilled in flying. It would be a shame to see this popular sport totally eliminated from our culture. Hopefully, there will be new enthusiasts to care for these animals and continue this pasttime.
Greenwich Time (Hearst Corp)
Pigeon Racing in Greenwich; Imbrogno, L; Oral History Project transcript, 2001.